FOR MILLENIA, falling was a sensation so terrifying that the ancients used it as a metaphor for damnation. Today, this same sensation is so prized that millions crave its intense rush - and get it by snowboarding off a half-pipe, careening down a two-hundred-foot thrill-ride drop, or experiencing the rush vicariously by tuning in to one of the most stunningly successful TV franchises of the last decade: ESPN's X Games.

By now it's clear that there is a revolution going on in popular sports and recreation. But how did it happen? That's the story that Defying Gravity tells.

It's a hair-raising tour that recounts the adventures of nineteenth and twentieth century gravity pioneers: high divers such as Sam Patch, who was practically worshiped in his time and then vilified after he was swallowed by the Genesee River; Niagara Falls daredevils such as Annie Taylor, a plump, sixty-three-year-old matron who said she was forty-two when she became the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel; and parachutists such as Robert Cocking, whose "improved" cone-shaped contraption sent him rocketing to his demise before a shocked audience at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in London.

Also included are mountaineers such as Matterhorn conqueror Edward Whymper, who saw four of his ropemates plunge four-thousand feet to their death when the rope broke; and 1920s Hollywood stuntmen who'd try "any foolish stunt my psychopaths in the writing room could think up," as director Mack Sennett put it.

Riveting as these portraits are, as the story of falling unfolds, one surprising turn after another reveals much more. Cognitive linguists offer insights as to why the metaphor of falling runs so deeply in myth and religion (why, for example, many Christians believe Satan was an angel who fell from heaven, even though that story isn't in the Bible). Psychologists explain that a love of falling (and other sensation-seeking antics) speaks volumes about one's personality (it's no coincidence that so many extreme athletes like drugs and hate authority). And anthropologists divulge that over the sixty-five million years of primate evolution that led to humans, the sense of gravity was perhaps the single greatest influence on the shape of our bodies and brains - and may have even given birth to human consciousness itself.


Defying Gravity presents its themes in an introduction that tells one of the extraordinary tales typical of gravity recreation; in this case, how bungee jumping was invented. All the usual suspects are here.

We meet the scientific types, who in the 1950s discover that natives in the South Pacific regularly hurl themselves head-first from hundred-foot towers into piles of dirt, protected by vines tied to their ankles. Next come the showmen, Britain's outrageous (and often inebriated) Dangerous Sports Club, who in the early 1980s, inspired by the native land divers, lash themselves to rubber cords and leap from bridges in top hats and tails. Finally, the entrepreneurs move in, represented by A.J. Hackett, who parlays his jump from the Eiffel Tower into a worldwide bungee empire that today has sent more than a million paying customers plummeting off towers from Queenstown, New Zealand, to Las Vegas, Nevada.

Patrick Krohn/

Themes introduced here become familiar in the ensuing chapters: that scientific efforts to explore a new gravity activity are often eclipsed by its popularity as a spectacle; that advances are usually made not by sober scientists but by showmen; that something about gravity play creates hard opinions, so that some see its pioneers as heroes while others curse them as irresponsible exploiters of the worst in human nature.


Part 1 opens in 1787, with the world's first parachutist, André Jacques Garnerin, dropping two-thousand feet beneath a rigid parachute that swings so violently he is nearly tossed out of his basket. The narrative then flashes back to the beginning of "the gravity century," where performers exploit gravity's danger to achieve celebrity: rope dancers strutting over ever-thinner wires raised higher and springboard leapers soaring over horses, elephants, even men with upturned swords. In 1784, ice slides are replicated in mechanical form - the first roller coasters. We follow Jacques Balmat, who in 1786 doggedly climbs to the top of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, marking the birth of mountaineering.

The pace accelerates: in New Jersey, high diver Sam Patch becomes so famous that Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe write about him; in France, Jules Léotard invents the flying trapeze; at Niagara Falls, the Great Blondin crosses the canyon on a tightwire, carrying a cast iron stove on which he cooks an omelet.

But as Part 1 draws to a close, there's trouble in the world of gravity play. Moralizers condemn Léotard and Blondin; Steven Brodie, lionized for jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge, turns out to be a fraud; in Switzerland, "extremist" climbers attempting the Eiger perish, bringing heaps of vitriol on mountaineers. Worse, the tall structures rising in the cities - such as the Eiffel Tower and Golden Gate Bridge - become magnets for those determined to fly from the railings into eternity. Even the Golden Age of Roller Coasters turns to lead, killed by the onslaught of the Great Depression. Finally, in a chapter entitled "The Fall of the Noble Daredevil," we see the image of the gravity hero destroyed, ruined by a parade of lunatics at Niagara who kill themselves with alarming frequency.


But as Part 2 begins, we arrive in the Hollywood of the 1920s, where the movies create a new market for gravity performers and a new kind of gravity hero. We meet Hutch Hutchinson, the Thrill-A-Minute Stunt King, who takes tremendous falls protected by little more than a hay wagon. We meet present day stuntwoman Nancy Thurston, one of the few specializing in high falls. Returning to the early twentieth century, we see aeronautical experts fail to perfect a life-saving parachute because they believe free falling causes suffocation - until they're proved wrong by death-defying showjumpers.

By the middle of the century, new ways to excite our sense of gravity appear, driven now by an emerging youth culture. We see surfing, the grandfather of extreme sports, brought to California by two strapping Hawaiians, George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku. After surfing roars into the mainstream on the heels of the movie Gidget, we learn how Santa Monica street kids, trespassing in drought-emptied swimming pools, morph sidewalk surfing into the stunning aerial dance known as vert skateboarding. In Yosemite, we follow drug-fueled climbing cults as they scurry up sheer cliffs on toes and fingertips, conquering routes thought impossible just years before.

In one chapter we learn how the sixty-five million years that our primate ancestors spent in the trees has built our bodies for acrobatic abilities - as well as giving us color vision, an opposable thumb, and a larger brain. Moving into the 1990s, we visit the X Games, and talk with BMX bike stunt rider Mat Hoffman, among other new gravity heroes. And to learn why extreme athletes do what they do, we delve into research on the "thrill gene" and sensation-seeking trait, and discover that the studies also have a lot to say about our tastes in food, music, politics, religion, and sex. A chapter on metaphors details how the idea of falling plays out in our myths, religion, and everyday language.

The final chapter reports on the latest in falling: the monstrous new thrill rides such as Magic Mountain's X, which flips you as you fall; the tow-in technique that now launches surfers down the face of eighty-foot waves, and more. It also makes a prediction: that in the near future, home motion simulators, with huge screens and teetering seats, will bring the sensation of falling directly into our living rooms.

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Copyright © 2006 Garrett Soden